Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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Ralph A. Gates Elementary School

Location Lake Forest, Calif.
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1999
Local district
Grades K-6
Enrollment 850
English Learners 44%
Subsidized Meals 63%
Special Needs 5%
Per Pupil Spending $5,367

The most distinctive feature of Ralph A. Gates Elementary School is its two-way language immersion (Spanish/English) program. In 1998, a group of concerned parents spearheaded the conversion of Gates from a regular California elementary school to a charter school, in large part to protect this program. The recent passage of Proposition 227 had all but eliminated bilingual programs in the state, but parents, teachers, the community, and the school board in Saddleback Valley Unified School District were all committed to maintaining the program that had been developed over the years at Gates. A Gates parent, who later became school board president, took the lead along with a resource teacher in writing the charter application. They applied to become a district-dependent charter, a type of charter under California law that preserves the school district as the management organization to deal with contracts, personnel policies, and so forth, but allows the school site council control over instruction, staffing configurations, and budgeting.

The multicultural, multilingual mission at Gates goes beyond a particular program. The school's goal is to educate each student as fully as possible, advancing the life prospects of students who often come from families in which the parents did not complete high school. A few years ago the principal and staff reviewed and revised the school mission statement, taking a careful look at their student population, which had an increasing number of English language learners and low-income students. They established a set of seven key "tenets" that guide how they interact as a staff and school community. A sense of purpose and high expectations pervades the school culture. The principal holds teachers to these standards, and she is currently counseling out one of the staff. Teachers agree with this approach. As one explains, "Either you are part of our staff or you need to find another staff that meets your vision and your mission."

The celebration of multicultural community is at the heart of the school. The principal describes how the large number of students from bi- and tri-racial families bolsters an attitude of acceptance for all students. Kermes, an annual multicultural fair hosted by the parents and community with assistance from the staff, is attended by 3,000 to 5,000 people-families from across the Orange County area-in a literal celebration of the multicultural community that Gates represents. Of the school's 850 students, 44 percent are English language learners and 63 percent qualify for subsidized meals. The students enrolled in the two-way immersion program represent 43 percent of the school population, while 57 percent of the students are in the regular program. In the school as a whole, providing the best possible education to these students and enhancing their lives and those of their families is the purpose that drives a caring and committed staff.

Program and Operations

Gates is a welcoming home for bilingual language development for both children and adults. Students are enrolled in either the two-way language immersion program or the regular program, which includes English language development strategies. After school, students-both English and Spanish speakers-can extend their fluency through programs funded by a Title III grant. This after-school foreign language program includes Spanish as a second language classes for the native English speakers and a Spanish literacy program for Spanish speakers who are in the regular program but want to extend their academic literacy in their first language. French classes will be added to the after-school foreign language program as it expands.

Gates School Tenets

We strive for high academic standards and expectations for all students in an environment that stimulates learning.

We promote students' self-esteem with positive reinforcement and build good character so each student can be successful.

We believe in programs that allow students to progress academically through appropriately leveled instruction.

We believe our parents should be equipped with information and resources in order to support their child's learning.

We respect diversity and individual differences in our students and staff.

We believe students should be provided with opportunities to learn a second language.

We use available technology to help our students, parents, and staff prepare for the future.

Parents can build their language skills, too. When a survey revealed that almost half the parents had not completed high school and that they wanted to learn English and computer literacy skills, the school responded. Working with the district's adult education department, they combined Title I, Title III, and adult education funding to set up a parent education program. Now parents go to school with their children, heading for one of the school's two computer labs, where they take ESL classes that also build computer literacy. After school there are classes for English-speaking parents who want to learn Spanish and for Spanish-speaking parents who want to become literate in their native language.

This array of programs has attracted highly qualified staff members-all have specialized certification-who are excited about teaching English learners and committed to helping their students succeed. Gates enrolls more language learners and low-performing students than any other school in the district, and support for these students is high. Parents who share the staff's enthusiasm for language development have formed the Advocates for Language Learning group. Members of this group have become knowledgeable about the international track record of two-way immersion programs, attend conferences, and actively contribute to school planning.

While the carefully designed language programs at Gates provide a solid base, the staff attribute their students' recent large increases in test scores to an additional factor-the dynamic model of flexibly regrouping students homogeneously for directed reading, writing, and math instruction, which the school began four years ago. Suspending the assumption of "one teacher-one classroom," they instituted a Joplin-plan grouping arrangement in which students are regrouped every four to five weeks into homogeneous skill groups. Students in grades 4-6 are grouped across grades; students in grades 2 and 3 are grouped within their grade. The regrouping has created an opportunity for teachers in grades 2-6 to work together and collaborate, sharing their knowledge of the children whose education they share. For the children, the regrouping is a way to break down stereotypes, meet individual needs, and give everyone access to the same standards-based curriculum. Every group works on the same standards, but assignments vary in depth, and group sizes are smaller for students who need more help. Special education students are included in these groups, for example, and the resource special education teacher is part of the teaching team.

If a student needs extra assistance, the Gator Assistance Team steps in. This team of eight staff members is trained in the Masonic model to assess the student's social, emotional, and economic needs. Teachers make the referrals; the team sifts through them and makes recommendations that are implemented. The student is then monitored, and, if needed, the team can move the child to special education testing. The school's community liaison can also get involved as needed to facilitate access to community counseling or health resources.

Continuous Learning

Distinctive about the school culture is the "can-do" attitude. Teachers and staff will try whatever, provided it has worked for someone else or has evidence to show that it is a valid, promising program or approach. After trying and evaluating something new, staff decide whether to continue it or not. For example, when regrouping was instituted, in 2000-01, the whole first half of the year was dedicated just to getting the planning down pat. Teachers finally got started, halfway through the year, regrouping students for language arts. Initially, there were a lot of naysayers and doubters, people who were hesitant or even a little scared. What the principal suggested to them is indicative of the spirit that has served the school well: "We're all jumping off the fence and if we fall, I'll fall first and I will be your pillow." The principal, who had been at the school only a year, felt honored that the staff were willing to trust her, and after only two weeks, teachers realized that their experiment with regrouping was working. Even the loudest naysayer was pleased to have been wrong. At the end of the school year, teachers were eager to know whether regrouping would continue the following year. The principal left it up to them, and that's when regrouping was instituted for math as well as language arts.

Gates is a welcoming home for bilingual language development for both children and adults.

The teachers have developed rubrics for developmental progress that are used for student assessment, by the students themselves to reflect on their progress, for instructional planning, and in the regular reporting to parents. Teachers also refer to monthly printouts from standardized assessments to help them link their instruction to identified student needs.

Parents and Partners

Parents are active contributors to the school, volunteering in classrooms and running supplementary activities. The annual Kermes multicultural celebration is a highlight of the year, and draws participation from businesses and families in the surrounding community as well as from the school's own population. The parent-run Multicultural Club, the Computer Club, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and Homework Club supplement the after-school programs.

Parents and teachers work together to bring in new opportunities. In 2002, for example, the staff saw a need to help students increase in resiliency, respect for themselves and others, and responsibility for their work. A team of parents and staff attended a regional "Asset Building" workshop. They returned with training for the rest of the staff and began the integration of a character education program, focusing on teaching students how to build and practice the traits of positive character. This year, resiliency training is being extended to the assets classes the school provides for parents.

The staff reciprocate parents' involvement by going out of their way to be accessible to those who want to talk about their children's progress. As the principal reports, "We are here whenever they can make it. Before school, our teachers will come in at 8:00 in the morning, 7:00 in the morning. They will stay until 6:00, 7:00 at night to meet with the parents whom they feel they need to meet with."

They instituted a Joplin-plan grouping arrangement in which students are regrouped every four to five weeks into homogeneous skill groups.

In addition, the school provides regular and frequent communication to parents in both Spanish and English. Specific information about student progress is provided to parents monthly.

Governance and Accountability

The school site council, made up of six parents and six staff members, sets and oversees the school program. While taking advantage of district management services and staff development offerings, Gates has autonomy to allocate the school's budget and determine staffing as well as instructional programs. They can combine funding from different sources and use these funds flexibly as they determine what best meets the school's needs. For example, while the district's normal staffing pattern would not include an assistant principal for a school of this size, the council felt that additional oversight was needed and allocated a position for a teacher on special assignment. They also hired a number of part-time teachers who reduce group sizes during the regrouping for core academic subjects. While their annual plans and budgets are submitted to Saddleback Valley Unified School District as the authorizing agency, the district board is highly supportive of Gates and routinely accepts their proposals. The charter came up for renewal in 2003 and was quickly and unanimously approved.

Student scores provide positive evidence of the school's effectiveness. The 2000 Academic Performance Index (API) was 689 and was targeted to be raised 6 points for 2001. The reading regrouping empowered student subgroups to make significant gains above the target set by the state, raising the API by 32 points to 731. In 2002-03, Gates staff restructured the mathematics programs based on test data from 2001. This regrouping allowed them to create smaller classes for struggling students (as well as high achievers) so that they could provide the mathematics curriculum at each group's instructional level. Additionally, the program has increased the redesignation rate for students to be classified "fluent English," in both the two-way immersion and regular programs. In recognition of the school's continued student achievement, Gates received the California Distinguished Schools Award in 2002 and the California Title I Achieving Schools Award in 2003.

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009